Although I was rather unceremoniously catapulted from it, I occasionally hear stirrings in the Ivory Tower. And sometimes those goings-on warrant a drivel-laced comment from me. Late last week, Brainstorm, one of the blogs on The Chronicle of Higher Education website, ran a response to the its own feature on some members of Northwestern University’s first class of black studies Ph.D students. The article highlighted a diverse cohort of junior scholars, many of them black women, and their dissertation projects. Two weeks later, Brainstorm blogger, Naomi Schafer Riley wrote a supremely uninformed, and frankly racist, polemic not simply against the article and those featured in it, but the very existence of black studies programs. In the imaginatively titled, “The Most Persuasive Case For Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” Riley writes with such hubris, one envisions her throwing up in her mouth a little as she sat at her computer typing her argument:
If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
This is wrong. And easily refutable. Calling a dissertation irrelevant, something “no one will ever look at” is the most redundant claim I’ve read all month. Having served a rather long sentence in an English department, I can assure Riley and others who found this bit of her statement somehow revelatory that there are more irrelevant and inane (drafts of) dissertations floating about accidental-like on a breeze than those featured in the article. (Trust me. I speak from experience.) Projects so uninteresting and unimportant that no one, not even their subject(s) would care to read them, even if they were still alive. In actuality, some of the dissertations listed seem to have potential utility beyond finding the writer a tenure-track position and/or giving proud mothers rather obtuse bedtime reading material. So for Riley to suggest that these projects whose abstracts she didn’t even bother to read are particularly insignificant requires a stubborn blindness to the nature of the dissertation. Useful dissertation is more or less an oxymoron.
Since Riley’s claim that black studies dissertations are particularly trivial is easily countered by, say, a dissertation from one’s favorite department in the Humanities, one has to conclude, then, that she finds the projects The CHE chose to highlight worthy of such flimsy attack because they concern–and are written by–black people. And that, even in our post-race haze, is a pretty racist claim to make.
The Northwestern black studies faculty were compelled to respond, and The CHE rightly ran their incredibly direct and pithyletter. Other Brainstorm bloggers responded to their colleague’s post. Blackademics bristled, and some of those with a conference paper to put off procrastinated with a post of some sort. As might be expected, a petition to have Riley dismissed was started. The CHE also ran a letter written by several of the graduate students who were featured in the original piece.
To be sure, I completely understand the anger Riley’s post instigated, especially among those students who were directly attacked and others (like my former self, perhaps) who were implicated in her uninformed diatribe. I stand in complete solidarity with them and am in unequivocal support of the importance of their work–as much as a complete stranger with no dog in this fight can. Yet the students’ letter and its invocation of other issues beyond Riley along with other, unrelated calls to fire her seem like slightly misguided distractions, potential pitfalls we all get consumed with when these kinds of events occur.
For fear of coming off like a (black) conservative–I am especially wary since I have been doing my best to conjure the ghost of one George S. Schuyler (hologram, please)–I want to make it clear that I do not take issue with the call to fire Riley on the basis of free speech. I have two other completely legitimate reasons. First, I take issue with these kinds of petitions. I’m over them. In fact, I kind of want to start a petition to end petitions. More seriously, though, I do not support the move to fire Riley because I don’t think we combat racism by silencing it. It’s like muting a television: it’s not that the folks on the screen aren’t saying anything, it’s simply that the viewer doesn’t hear. Others are listening, though. And the story goes on, whether or not we can read lips or capture the dialogue in other ways. Furthermore, as I’ve said before, the discourse on race, despite our obsession with it, has an extremely anemic lexicon. So this kind of liberal, “this person is saying stupid, insensitive, and racist things we must shut her up” impulse seems really counterproductive.
Finally, Riley is such an easy target. And aiming our vitriol at her is thoroughly pointless. Again, I want to reiterate that I am not taking issue with the students’ decision to respond to her. That was a necessary and completely understandable act. In fact, I wanted to pay homage to an old blog feature of mine by starting a rumor that a group of black graduate students in Atlanta were so incensed by Riley’s words that they set fire to Tyler Perry’s studio in an act of defiance. (Too soon?) Bad jokes and digressions aside, though, removing Riley from her platform simply makes us feel better. Responding to Riley’s claim is rather simple. What is less simple, and more painful perhaps, is moving from the symptom to the pathology at work. In other words, Riley is a mere foot soldier at best in a much more nefarious system of inequality at work. Riley is harmless. What’s scarier is the fact that there are people at Northwestern and other institutions (of higher education) with actual power, who feel the way Riley does, who can work to eliminate the pre- or post-doctoral position(s) that support(s) black studies work. Naomi Riley has no say over your stipend or whether or not you can register next semester. She cannot protect you when you’ve not taken your exams in a timely manner. But it would be foolish of us to think that those who do wield such authority are all liberal do-gooders who find such topics of interest worthy of study and will not work to find a reason–economy or otherwise–to eliminate the field or remove you from their department.
Moreover, we must not forget that black studies, or women’s studies, or queer studies exist because we are working towards a (more) egalitarian culture. Rather, the blowback of efforts in the mid-20th century to get subjects previously unacknowledged in various canons of learning included in universities and other places was that all that “other stuff” could be jettisoned to these various departments with little to no effect on the teaching of dead white guys. In fact, if our desire to is to be included and acknowledged within the culture (and personally, I can’t say that I have such a yearning), then we would disagree with Riley’s means but support her ends. Which is to say that we would also want the end of black studies, not because we find the subject unworthy of our attention, but because what comprises the field has been thoroughly absorbed by everyone. In other words, students would be expected to read Henry James and James Baldwin in the same course(s), because we would have come to the point where we did not doubt that both men have the same value–or are both worth nothing, take your pick.
Although I understand the impulse for many of us bystanders to articulate righteous indignation when Riley and others open their digital mouths, I must suggest that such actions move our eyes away from the proverbial ball. Further, I fear that such gestures ironically reify the systems of inequality we claim to work against. After all, Riley is the perfect morsel for us to fight over while others feast within our ken; we could see them if we just paused and looked. So perhaps instead of silencing Riley and questioning the integrity of The CHE, we acknowledge those errors in thinking but begin the work of really dismantling the systems that continually oppress those of us who are not white, straight, and male. Just a thought.